Injured guardsman finds healing at home
Family, friends aid soldier's effort to get on with normal life
Thursday, November 11, 2004

  It's hard to think of Joe Davis as fortunate. He nearly lost a leg to his war wounds.
  Still, Davis, one of a handful of wounded guard soldiers from Fort Lewis allowed home under the remote-care initiative, has been able to recover around loved ones, giving him a sense of control over his life.
  "They're on to something with it," he says of the remote-care program, which he considers the best thing to happen in an otherwise frustrating experience. He's on active but "light" duty with the state National Guard.
  Davis needed it. At home, with the support of his wife, friends, family and church, he has fought through pain and pent-up emotions to do something doctors thought he might never do -- walk. "The hardest thing about coming home at first was simply being out in public, people staring when I couldn't wear pants, had my legs up in pins, riding around on a Rascal," he says. "I got jumpy when kids came out of nowhere.   Understand, I had a little kid try to kill me in Iraq, stab me with a knife."
  A four-year National Guard veteran from Yakima, Davis served in Iraq with the 1161st Transportation Company out of Ephrata. The truck-driving unit became one of the nation's longest-serving guard units in Iraq when its deployment was repeatedly extended to more than 16 months until it came home in August. A motorcycle mechanic in civilian life, he specialized in communications but in Iraq learned there are no front lines as he drove trucks in convoys. "We always drove under fire," he recalls. "One of the things I found myself avoiding after I came home was potholes and things in the road. In Iraq they could be filled with C-4 (explosive material)."
  The morning of Feb. 29, 2004, Davis was walking outdoors when he heard mortars explode in the distance. He yelled to the executive officer, "Do you hear that, sir?" and never heard a reply.
  "I was in the air," Davis recalls. "I was looking at the sky, and I really felt hot, and I knew something bad had happened."
  The meat of half his right calf was gone, his splintered left tibia and fibula protruded angrily above his ankle. Two-thirds of his blood was seeping away. Davis' body swelled from the concussion, cutting off circulation. Surgeons sawed off his wedding ring and made incisions to vent pressure. Asphalt peppered and blackened his skin. He felt damaged nerves and impaired hearing. "I still can't feel my two fingers," he says, raising his left hand.
  Countless shards of hot metal also showered him head to toe. His body reacted by forming scar tissue around fragments too small for surgeons' scalpels and seems to expel some toward the surface of his skin.
  Surgeons screwed pins to knit together shattered bones to save Davis' legs, grafting skin from his thighs to seal gaping holes in his flesh. Davis was shocked when a bandage slipped and he saw bone through a hole in his leg.
  His weight fell from 190 to 135 pounds as he was hospitalized in Baghdad, Germany and finally stateside. He arrived March 10 at McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis' Madigan Army Medical Center. Davis' treatment remains non-stop. Last month, his toes atrophied and curled, hindering his reborn gait.  Doctors cut tendons to straighten them, a procedure likely to be repeated over the years.
  From a house ringed by the aroma from wood stoves and Ponderosa pines at the end of a dirt road in northern Idaho, he goes three times a week to Sandpoint, about 45 minutes away. There he adheres to two-hour physical therapy sessions through a civilian provider paid by the military's Tricare medical coverage.
  Davis calls his wife, Jackie, his best friend and counselor, and his family, friends and church congregation his assurance. He is slow to trust many outside that circle, except, perhaps, other vets past and present.
  "We have our hard times, arguments, feelings hurt. It's not heaven on earth at times, but when you think of what could have happened. ..." Jackie Davis says.
  His physical wounds were one thing, his mental anguish another. "For four months he slept with his eyes open," she says. He had nightmares and was quickly angered. Once when she leaned across him while he slept in the hospital, he grabbed for her throat but didn't hurt her.
  The couple now brace for another separation after Thanksgiving when Davis expects to don his uniform and return to Fort Lewis to await a medical discharge board review of his case. Jackie expects to resume the seven-hour, one-way drives she made last spring to see him. "It's not stamina; I just love him," she says.
  Given the backlogs, it could take up to nine months to be discharged from the service, they reckon, at least four months afterward while Veterans Affairs processes a claim.
  After he's out of the service, Davis thinks he might try to become a corrections officer. Maybe the government will help them with their home -- the couple never expected that a disabled veteran would one day have to negotiate the steps and split-level floors inside.
  Davis can't begin a different career because he's on active duty but challenges himself as much as his legs allow, fixing a window seal, cutting firewood, even mounting a three-wheel motorcycle, trying to regain the form he once had on two-wheelers. Lately he's has been trying to rid their home of a woodpecker punching holes in its outside walls. The bird an alter ego to Davis' own stubborn determination.